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South Africa Overview

South Africa has spectacular views, stunning wildlife, and unbeatable biodiversity, in contrast with its bustling modern cities and vibrant economy, South Africa is often described as “A world in one country.”  The country has more than 290 conservation parks. It is home to almost 300 mammal species, about 860 bird species and 8 000 plant species. The annual sardine run is the biggest migration on the planet. There are eight world heritage sites and seven different biomes. It is considered the cradle of humankind and boasts 40% of all hominid finds on Earth.



South Africa map with flagStretching latitudinally from 22°S to 35°S and longitudinally from 17°E to 33°E, South Africa’s surface area covers 1 219 602 km2. According to Census 2011, the shift of the national boundary over the Indian Ocean in the north-east corner of KwaZulu-Natal to cater for the Isimangaliso Wetland Park increased South Africa’s land area.

Physical features range from bushveld, grass­lands, forests, deserts and majestic mountain peaks, to wide unspoilt beaches and coastal wetlands. The country shares common boundaries with Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland, while the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho is landlocked by South African territory in the south-east.

The 3 000-km coastlines is an even, closed one with few bays or indentations naturally suitable for harbours and stretches from the Mozambican border in the east to the Namibian border in the west. The Atlantic and Indian oceans meet at Cape Point in the continent’s south-western corner.

The Prince Edward and Marion islands, annexed by South Africa in 1947, lie some 1 920 km south-east of Cape Town.


The warm Mozambique-Agulhas Current skirts the east and south coasts as far as Cape Agulhas, while the cold Benguela Current flows northwards along the west coast as far as southern Angola. The contrast in temperature between these two currents partly accounts for significant differences in climate and vegetation, as well as differences in marine life.

Owing to the cold waters of the west coast being much richer in oxygen, nitrates, phosphates and plankton than those of the east coast, the South African fishing industry is centred on the west coast.  Saldanha Bay on the west coast is the only ideal natural harbour.


None of the country’s rivers are commercially navigable and most river mouths are unsuitable as harbours because large sandbanks block entry for most of the year. South Africa has no significant natural lakes. Artificial lakes are used mostly for crop irrigation. The Orange River is South Africa’s largest river. Rising in the Drakensberg Mountains, it traverses through the Lesotho Highlands and joins the Caledon River between the Eastern Cape and the Free State before it empties into the Atlantic Ocean forming the border with Namibia.

Other major rivers include the Vaal, Breede, Komati, Lepelle (previously Olifants), Tugela, Umzimvubu, Limpopo and Molopo.



South Africa’s surface area falls into two major physiographic categories: the interior plateau and the land between the plateau and the coast.

Forming the boundary between these two areas is the Great Escarpment, the most prominent and continuous relief feature of the country. Its height above sea level varies from about 1 500 m in the dolerite-capped Roggeveld scarp in the south-west, to 3 482 m in the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg.

Inland from the escarpment lies the interior plateau, which is the southern continuation of the great African plateau stretching north to the Sahara Desert. The plateau is characterised by wide plains with an average height of 1 200 m above sea level. The dissected Lesotho plateau, which is more than 3 000 m above sea level, is the most prominent.

Between the Great Escarpment and the coast lies an area which varies in width from 80 km to 240 km in the east and south, and 60 km to 80 km in the west. At least three major subdivisions are recognised – the eastern plateau slopes, the Cape folded belt and adjacent regions, and the western plateau slopes.


South Africa is a subtropical location, moderated by ocean on three sides of the country and the altitude of the interior plateau, account for the warm temperate conditions. South Africa is a relatively dry country, with an average annual rainfall of about 464 mm, compared to a world average of about 860 mm. While the Western Cape gets most of its rainfall in winter, the rest of the country is generally a summer-rainfall region.

Temperatures in South Africa tend to be lower than in other countries at similar latitudes – such as Australia – owing mainly to greater elevation above sea level.

On the interior plateau the altitude – Johan­nesburg lies at 1 694 m – keeps the average summer temperatures below 30°C. In winter, for the same reason, night-time temperatures can drop to freezing point or lower in some places. South Africa’s coastal regions are therefore relatively warm in winter. There is a striking contrast between temperatures on the country’s east and west coasts, owing respectively to the warm Agulhas Current and cold Benguela Current that sweep the coastlines.



Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu coined the well-known phrase “the Rainbow Nation” to describe the melting pot of people and cultures living together in South Africa. South Africa is a nation of diversity, with more than 50 million people and a wide variety of cultures, languages and religious beliefs.

Black South Africans are in the majority, making up 79,2% of the population, while white and coloured people each make up about 9%,and the Indian/Asian population 2,5%.



English is the mother tongue of only 9,6% of the population, but it is the language most widely understood, and the second language of the majority of South Africans. English is also most widely used for official and commercial communication.


“In October 2013, South Africa hosted the 10th biannual International Conference on Language and Development, in conjunction with the British Council. The 10th conference was the second to be convened in

Sub-Saharan Africa. It coincided with reviews of progress made towards achieving the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by development professionals and policy makers worldwide, as the 2015 MDG deadline approaches. This was an opportunity to explore the role of language in contributing to the achievement of the MDGs, specifically: MDG 2: Achieving universal primary education; MDG 3: Promoting gender equality and empowering women, and MDG 8: Developing a global partnership for development.”

Owing to South Africa’s cultural diversity, the country has 11 official languages. They are Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sesotho sa Leboa, Sesotho, Setswana, Siswati, Tshivenda and Xitsonga.

Government developed the Use of Official Languages Bill in 2012 as part of promoting social cohesion. Another important part of this was the protection and promotion of indigenous knowledge systems, which included promoting formal indigenous knowledge education and assisting indigenous communities to establish cooperative structures to organise themselves.

Language Percentage
isiZulu 22,7%
isiXhosa 17,6%
Afrikaans 13,3%
Sesotho sa Leboa 9,4%
English 8,2%
Setswana 8,2%
Sesotho 7,6%
Xitsonga 4,4%
siSwati 2,5%
Tshivenda 2,4%
isiNdebele 2,1%
Sign Language 0,5%
Mid-year population estimates, 2013



According to August 2012 polls released by the Win-Gallup International Religiosity and Atheism Index, which measures global self-perceptions on belief, religious South Africans dropped from 83% of the population in 2005 to 64% in 2012.

According to the survey, 28% of South Africans do not consider g% said they were atheists. About 80% of South Africa’s religious population is Christian. Other major religious groups include Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists. A minority does not belong to any of the major religions. The Constitution guarantees freedom of worship.


South Africa has three capitals: Cape Town (legislative), Pretoria (administrative) and Bloemfontein (judicial).


Since the first post-apartheid elections in 1994, South Africa has had a democratic government. The Constitution is regarded as an example to the world and enshrines a wide range of human rights protected by an independent judiciary. The head of the country is the president. The current incumbent is Jacob Zuma, who is the head of the ruling party, the African National Congress.


Regarded as an emerging market, South Africa has a well-developed financial sector and active stock exchange. Financial policies have focused on building solid macroeconomic structures. The country’s central bank is the South African Reserve Bank.


The tourism industry is well established with an exciting sector of emerging entrepreneurs. The country is strong on adventure, sport, nature and wildlife, and is a pioneer and global leader in responsible tourism.


The last census in 2011 showed a population of about 52-million people, of varying origins, cultures, languages and religions, of which 79,2% are African, 8,9% ‘coloured’ (a term used in South Africa to describe people of mixed race), 8,9% white, and 2,5% Indian. Just over half the population is female.


South Africa’s currency is the rand, which offers visitors great value for money. The rand comes in a range of coins (R1 = 100 cents) and note denominations of R10, R20, R50, R100 and R200.


South Africa is known for its long sunny days, hence the title, ‘Sunny South Africa’. Most of the nine provinces have summer rainfall, except for the Western Cape, which experiences winter rainfall. The high-lying areas of the interior can be chilly in winter. The South African Weather Service uses the following dates for seasons:

Spring: September, October, November
Summer: December through February
Autumn: March, April, May
Winter: June through August


South Africa has a well-developed communications infrastructure. A number of cellphone providers offer national coverage and there are well-established landline phone networks. Internet and Wi-Fi are easily accessible in most urban areas.


The South African flag is a much-loved symbol of the ‘new’ South Africa. It comprises a geometric pattern of green, white, black, gold, red and blue.

South Africa’s national bird is the blue crane. The national animal is the springbok; the national fish, the galjoen; the national flower, the giant or king protea; and the national tree, the yellowwood.

South Africa’s national anthem is based on the Xhosa hymn, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa), composed by Enoch Sontonga in 1897, and Die Stem van Suid-Afrika (The Call of South Africa).